For Americans 65 and older, falling down can be the worst thing to happen to them, according to statistics from the National Council on Aging:
• One in three seniors experiences a significant fall each year
• Every 18 seconds, a senior is admitted into an emergency room after losing balance and hitting the ground
• Every 35 minutes, an elderly person dies from a fall — the leading cause of death for seniors
“The projected cost in health-care expenses for 2020 due to fall-related injuries in the United States is $55 billion,” says Karen Peterson, a therapist with multiple certifications, and author of “Move With Balance: Healthy Aging Activities for Brain and Body,” (www.MoveWithBalance.org). She’s also the founder and director of Giving Back, a nonprofit organization that grows and spreads programs that support senior health.
“It’s important for seniors to keep moving and learning, that’s what helps improve balance and coordination, and even helps build new neural pathways,” says Peterson, who emphasizes the cognitive importance to her workout programs. “But if you’re rather frail, or just very fearful of falling, you’re less likely to get up and move around.” These activities benefit all seniors, from 55 to 105.
Peterson says a fun, social program of games and activities that include exercises specifically designed for seniors helps them address multiple issues, including those that tend to keep seniors sedentary – which only lessens their strength and balance.
Last year, her program was independently evaluated from Hawaii’s Department of Heath, which found a statistically significant reduction in falls from seniors – 38 percent. It also won the MindAlert Award from the American Society on Aging.
“Seniors of all ages need to continually work on improving their balance, coordination, strength, vision and cognitive skills. When they do, they’re less likely to fall – and more able to enjoy life.”
Peterson suggests these moves, which address many different areas of the body:
• The cross-crawl: After various light warm-ups, begin with the basic cross-crawl, which focuses on the fundamentals of balance. March in place, lifting the knees high. At the same time, reach across and touch the lifted knee with the opposite hand or elbow; alternate and keep going. This can be done sitting, standing or lying down. Once any of these exercises are mastered, Peterson says, participants should continue to challenge themselves. For even greater balance work, and to exercise the vestibular system, close your eyes and count backwards from 100 by threes. “It’s not fun if you’re not conquering a challenge,” she says. Her book includes several challenges for each exercise.
• Forward toe-touch dancer: To improve motor skills, physical coordination and cognition, there are many dance exercises that are appropriate for seniors. If needed, use a chair for assistance. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Now, simultaneously extend your left foot and your right arm forward. Keep your left toes pointed down, touching the floor; or for more difficulty, maintain the toes a few inches off the floor. Repeat this move with your left arm and right foot. Hold each pose for several seconds, and increase holding time.
• Sensory integration – the arrow chart: Look at an arrow chart and call out the direction indicated by each individual symbol. Then, thrust your arms in that direction; in other words, say and do what the arrow indicates. For an additional challenge, do the opposite of what the arrow indicates.
• Side-step walk: Walk sidestepping – bring your right foot across the left and step down three to five inches away from the left foot, ankles crossed. The closer the feet, the harder it is to balance. Alternate crossing the foot in front and then behind the other foot as you move along; repeat several times, then do the same with opposite feet. As a bonus challenge, try a reading exercise from a vision card, designed for stimulating the brain/visual system, while sidestepping.
• The cat jump: This activity is practice in case of a fall; the muscle memory of the movement will be etched in your body. Bend your knees in a squat. Jump a little off the ground with both feet, and land softly, like a cat, without jarring your body. Repeat until you are confident in your ability to prevent a spill.
“Research shows that most falls are preventable,” Peterson says. “These and other exercises, performed regularly, are a great way to achieve safety and a revitalized lifestyle.”
About Karen Peterson
Karen Peterson is founder and director of Giving Back, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of elders through intergenerational mentoring. She has multiple certifications, including as a Brain Gym® instructor, educational kinesiologist, natural vision improvement instructor, Touch for Health instructor and a massage therapist. For 25 years, Peterson has been teaching these modalities to children, businesspeople, athletes, classroom teachers and adults of all ages and occupations.